A shift in perspective

There is a trail behind my house, where I often take the dog. Sometimes I go a short way one direction—just long enough for him to “do his business”—turn around, and come back; sometime I go a short way in the other direction. And sometimes, I walk the entire loop. Two whole miles (it’s hilly! Don’t judge me 🙂 ). Usually I turn to the right when I am going to do the entire loop. There’s no particular reason for this; it’s just become my habit.

This morning I decided to go to the left instead. And, although I have walked this path many, many times, I was surprised how different it looked to me. Familiar landmarks were not so familiar from this perspective; I noticed details on the plants, trees, and trail that I had never noticed before. The pond came upon me suddenly, instead of the leisurely descent of the path toward it from the other direction.

A different view of the very same trail—walked from a different perspective.

When we think about race relations, this is what we need: a view from a very different, unfamiliar point of view—theirs.

I grew up in a small, very white town in the Midwest. My husband (who grew up in the same town) and I can only recall one black person in our entire community: the guy who had a shoeshine stand in the lobby of one of the professional buildings downtown. (Yes, I realize how racist and stereotypical this sounds.) I did not know his name, or anything else about him. Nor did I give him, or what his life must be like, much thought.

It has not been until the past few years that my seemingly benign (yet absolutely neglectful) ignorance of my fellow black citizens has been challenged. My eyes and heart have been opened to the real racism and oppression that continues to be a reality in our 21st century culture here in the United States– both in individual hearts, but also baked into our systems: economic, social, educational, and judicial.

I know that I only see a small sliver of it. But I want to know more, to be more aware, and to be a part of a change that will work toward solutions to these centuries-old issues.

How does this happen? How can I shift my perspective on my trail?

I can start by listening.

In my last post (which has been awhile ago, but check it out if you haven’t read it), I wrote of listening to others better, and trying to understand things from a different point of view. How do we do this, this “listening” to others?

The first and most obvious way is the simplest definition of it—we sit with people. We let them tell their stories, without pre-judgment or defensiveness. This applies to everyone we come in contact with: friends, co-workers, schoolmates, neighbors, and family.

This is difficult for us, mostly because we are self-centered creatures, and prone to think mostly of how we perceive things, how things affect us, etc. It takes real work and persistent effort to listen and empathize with another.

In the case of listening to people of color’s experiences and feelings, it starts the same way—sitting with them, being with them, and listening to their stories.

But what if we don’t know any people of color? Many of us live in areas where there are few to no black people, or any race other than whites. What do we do then?

My first suggestion is to look carefully at whether your geographic are is as “white” as you perceive it to be. Often we self-segregate with those with whom we identify, and with whom we feel more comfortable. That may happen through our choice of neighborhoods, churches, clubs, and groups. It’s fairly normal—but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. All of us could do some stretching in this area (myself definitely included). If you do not have any friends that are of a different ethnic group than you are, you have some work to do.

In the meantime, there are additional ways in which we can stretch ourselves. Nonwhites have been telling their stories for a long time, for those who have been willing to listen; through their oral histories and writings, we have access to their experiences and their thoughts. I confess that I have been woefully undereducated in these stories. It has not been until the last few years that I have sought out and read works by black authors: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander, to name just a few. Through reading their words, I am able to listen to their experiences, their thoughts, their concerns, and their cries for justice. I can listen. I begin to understand, in a small way, experiences that are so unlike my own.

I listen to my black brothers and sisters through films as well. Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”—these help us to see another viewpoint, to hear another story, told by those whom it has affected the most. Music is another avenue for listening. I am not as well-versed in this, but I have benefitted from listening to and reading about Kendrick Lamar‘s music, and his commentary on what it is like to be black in America today (graphic language warning if you listen to his music).

Note: I am not saying that we must all agree with absolutely everything that these artists convey (you don’t agree with everything you read or see that is conveyed by every white person, do you? And these authors and artists don’t always agree with everything the others have to say, either). I am saying that we need to expose ourselves to other ways of thinking about things, especially if we have formed opinions about groups of people or about current or historical events, without having a full view of or a framework for what has happened/is happening.

In an effort to seek out a more fully fleshed out history of black folks in the US, I recently read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon. I was only vaguely aware of what the post-Civil War/Reconstruction era was like. The reality was far more horrific than what I had imagined, as a system of convict leasing and debt peonage (pseudo-slavery) sprang up that was as bad as the slavery that had been “abolished”. Blackmon is not black himself, but in this book, and the subsequent PBS documentary based on it, he has given a voice to the thousands and thousands of “freed slaves” who endured systemic oppression well into the 20th century. The effects of this abusive system are still with us in black communities today. We have come far, but have so very far yet to go.

I have much more that I want to read and listen to and mull over and act upon, from black authors and bloggers, and from Native American writers and histories as well (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is high on my ‘read next’ list).

We are all products of our environment, our education, and our exposure. We would do well to “walk the trail in a different direction”. If we wish to know truth and to love others in a God-pleasing way, then we should not be either fearful or disdainful of what minorities have to say, but instead seek out their voices.

Listen.

They are speaking, and they have something to say.

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